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Opening Arguments

The new center?

The poll we're running on the editorial page this week asks if it's time for a third major political party in this country. So far, the results are duplicating the recent Gallup poll on the same subject, with a strong majority saying indeed it is time.

Perhaps the results help explain this:

It’s the most conventional wisdom in Washington, the unchallenged idea that America is a divided nation, a country ripped into red and blue factions in perpetual conflict. The government shutdown this fall would seem like only the latest evidence of this political civil war. But is the idea of two Americas even true? Not according to a new Esquire-NBC News survey.

At the center of national sentiment there’s no longer a chasm but a common ground where a diverse and growing majority - 51 percent  - is bound by a surprising set of shared ideas.

[. . .]

The people of the center are patriotic and proud, with a strong majority (66 percent) saying that America is still the greatest country in the world, and most (54 percent) calling it a model that other countries should emulate. But the center is also very nervous about the future, overwhelmingly saying that America can no longer afford to spend money on foreign aid (81 percent) when we need to build up our own country.

Pluralities believe that the political system is broken (49 percent), and the economy is bad (50 percent) and likely to stay that way a while (41 percent). Majorities fear another 9/11 or Boston-style bombing is likely (70 percent), and that their children’s lives will be more difficult than their own (62 percent), which are either stuck in place or getting worse (84 percent) — while the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else (70 percent).  

The new American center has a socially progressive streak, supporting gay marriage (64 percent), the right to an abortion for any reason within the first trimester (63 percent), and legalized marijuana (52 percent). Women, workers and the marginal would also benefit if the center had its way, supporting paid sick leave (62 percent); paid maternity leave (70 percent); tax-subsidized childcare to help women return to work (57 percent); and a federal minimum wage hike to no less than $10 per hour (67 percent).

But the center leans rightward on the environment, capital punishment, and diversity programs. Majorities support offshore drilling (81 percent) and the death penalty (90 percent), and the end of affirmative action in hiring and education (57 percent). Most people in the center believe respect for minority rights has gone overboard, in general, harming the majority in the process (63 percent). And just one in four support immigration reforms that would provide a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.

Not sure a political party could form around this particular set of ideas, though, since there seems to be no central philosphical idea connecting them all, unless it's some form of pragmatism tinged with a little bit of social conscience. Basically, they're proud of what this country has been, but not optimistic it will stay that way, willing to go pretty far to help others but aware that we can go too far and not wishing to be taken advantage of. Is this a common sense middle-of-the-road approach or just the muddled thinking of those who aren't as consumed by politics as some of us? Dunno, but it's interesting.

If the poll is pretty close to accurate (don't know why, but I suspect it is), the seeming contradictions are, I think, understandable. They're not the result of the exchange of uninformed opinions but of an inchoate yearning based on frustation. As members this "new center" start talking with each other (hey, they've got Twitter and Facebook, too), perhaps a clearer philosphical direction will start to emerge -- something apart from the left's "equality in all things" and the right's "no to the federal government."

I met a man during jury duty yesterday who could be the spokesperson for this new center, a computer techie who tries to be interested in politics but finds it very hard. He says he wants to be fair to all sides, to listen to the best arguments and then make up his own mind. But -- this is important -- he doesn't have faith in any of the voices he has to listen to and wishes there were a "neutral" site out there somewhere without an ax to grind whose numbers and facts he could trust. It's people like him all of us polemicists are trying and failing to reach.

UODATE. Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of National Review, doesn't think the "new center" is very centrist:

The pollsters divided Americans into eight groups based on their responses to the poll questions: two liberal groups, two conservative groups and four in between. They aggregated those four groups to see what the center thinks about various issues.

This method yields a center with views that are different from those of the median voter. On social issues, especially, the "center" the pollsters found is to the left of the public as a whole.

[. . .]

Politicians and strategists will find useful information in the pollsters' picture of the new American center. Just don't confuse it for a picture of the middle of American society.